Sunday, July 07, 2013

Man of Steel

I saw Man of Steel for a second time tonight. I normally only see movies twice in the theatres if I really loved it, or if I liked it, but there was something really bugging me about it. Man of Steel was the later. So I went back to see if I could figure it out.

I think I was too hard on it the first time. It's a pretty good movie. It's not destined to go down as the best in the super hero genre. I think Iron Man, The Avengers and The Dark Knight are going to have the top three in that list locked up for quite some time. But it's fine on it's own. And it has a lot going for it. I think Henry Cavill is fine as Clark Kent. He's no Christopher Reeve, but he's better than Brandon Routh. Amy Adams steals things as Lois Lane and is easily the best version of that character I've ever seen on the screen. And that's a pretty good supporting cast. If you're a guy and you don't get touched by the big father/son scene with Kevin Costner, well, you have issues.

And as much as think the last third of the movie is more than a touch too disaster porn-y and an effort to overcompensate from the criticism of Superman Returns that he never actually throws a punch (that's the least of that movie's sins), they are top notch action sequences. I actually liked the fight with Zod's henchwoman Faora a lot more than the big, climatic fight at the end. If you want to know what it might be like for super humans to have a fight in a metropolitan area, this movie is not a bad primer.

(The best, most honest comic book version of superhumans fighting still remains the terrifying issue #15 of Miracleman from back in the 80s where two beings destroy London and kill tens of thousands. I'd recommend picking up a copy to read, but it's out of print and you don't have the money to buy the back issues or the trades, which go for ridiculous amounts of money.)

So what's my problem? Well, I can point to specific moments. I still hate the ending of the big action sequence. I think the US military is functionally brain dead if they can't figure out who Superman is by the end of the movie. I'm not fond of Jonathan Kent's fate. But these are mostly nitpicks.

I think I wish this was a I remember reading comic book writer and novelist Greg Rucka saying before the movie came out that if this was a movie you couldn't take young kids to see it then you've failed, citing the scene in Superman Returns where Superman gets knifed by Lex Luthor as not really being appropriate for kids. And I'm not sure this movie is appropriate for kids. I don't have them, so I don't know. But I'm not sure I would take one under nine to this movie.

It's not unexpected that this movie is darker and more, I don't know, emo, given the creators involved. Dark = character development in their world. Which kind of misses the point, I think. There's darkness in the Iron Man movies, but there's also a hell of a lot of fun. Man of Steel has not enough of that. Not enough moments of wonder and joy.

And those origins are out there. No comic book character, with the possible exception of Batman, has had his origin rewritten so many times as Superman. Just before the movie came out Comixology (a digital comic app) had a sale on some Superman comics for 99 cents. I downloaded a bunch. There have been at least four major overhauls of his origin in the last 25 years alone, not to mention countless "out of continuity" retellings, like Red Son which imagines what would happen if the rocket had crashed in the Ukraine in the 1930s instead of Kansas.

I don't know much about the current origin, which was introduced about two years ago, other than most people really don't like the Superman books right now (perhaps because he's younger, sulkier and angrier. Also, his Kansas parents are both dead in his current origin, something I really dislike). But the other three all have merits.

Man of Steel by John Byrne came out in the mid-80s. It's a touch dated, but it worked wonders at the time. Superman was a mess before that series. There was about 50 different types of kryptonite and a ton of just silly foes and bizarre quirks. His power levels were also just short of God. The series stripped everything back to the basics and his version of Lex Luthor as a genius, driven businessman with a massive ego became the default version for decades. Byrne's artwork is still beautiful, even if the clothing and looks are a touch 80s.

There's Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Francis Yu which has a young Clark Kent travelling the world, particularly Africa, for the first few issues, as a reporter trying to see the world, understand things, and help people. And it works quite well. There are elements that don't work (Lex Luthor), but it's quite good and worth taking a look at.

But my favourite, and the one they really could have used more of, was Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's beautiful Superman: For All Seasons. For one thing, it's beautiful to look at. No kidding, Sale created one of the best drawn Superman books ever. But it's just a nice, simple....clean retelling. It actually feels like Kent is from Kansas (something the movie basically ignores except for a few touches). He's a nice kid, a bit reserved and quiet, trying to figure things out. He has friends, but knows he should do more to help. When he makes a mistake, he runs home to try and figure things out and learns from his parents and friends. It's good stuff. It falls squarely under the "He's Clark Kent, Superman is just a costume" side of the argument.

I'm not saying they should have made that comic into a movie. Given it's shifting narrative structure, it wouldn't work. But they should have taken the spirit of that comic and made that into a movie. A lot of people complain about how hard it is to make a Superman movie, which is the same bullshit complaint they say of Wonder Woman (honestly, there are easily a half dozen stories they could adapt). It's not. You need the right people and the conviction to stick with the core origins of the character.

Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly created one of the best Superman stories ever about seven years or so ago with All-Star Superman. It's not an origin comic, although it has one of best summations of his origin ever - one page, four panels, eight words: Doomed Planet, Desperate Scientists, Last Hope, Kindly Couple - that is just breathtaking when you consider how much ink others have spilled trying to expand on that. But it's fun and filled with mad ideas. There's drama, because Superman is dying, but it's also filled with so much energy and joy that it's infectious.

The origin in Iron Man was loosely based on his comic book one and the rest of the story was even more loosely based on any specific storyline, yet they nailed the heart of the character. I'm not sure they did that here. They got a sketchy, superficial version of who he is, but not the heart.

All of which is a rambling way of saying that comic book folks have, for the most part, figured out the character and what makes him work. When they get it right, and they have, it's a cool thing. He's a humble character, who has his doubts, but overcomes them. He's an immigrant, but wants to help his adopted country/planet. There's a joy to the character. Some confuse it for him being boring or simple, but that's a mistake. He's an inspiration (which you can do without hammering people with the Christ analogy like the last two movies have). Superman can be a blast, he just needs the right any character.

Snyder, Goyer and Nolan can do dark and dramatic quite well. I just think they missed out on the fun. It's a fine origin...they could have done better. Maybe they'll remember it for the sequel.

Last Five
1. Town chapel - Telekinesis
2. Bats - The Joy Formidable
3. Stella the artist - David Gray
4. Too much blood - The Gaslight Anthem*
5. On your way down - Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint

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